Japan Times: Ichihashi trial bares translation woes: Courts refuse to admit that interpreters often lack the necessary skills


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Hi Blog.  Getting back to business, here’s an older article on how people who are not native speakers of Japanese are at a disadvantage in the Japanese judiciary due to things lost in translation.  Yes, the killer of Lindsay Ann Hawker got his, thank goodness, but not without a degree of unprofessionality unbecoming a purportedly modern justice system, as the JT gets into below.  This is not the first time this has been pointed out, yet we still hear of no particular movement to standardize training and certify translators.  This lack of prioritization couldn’t be due to allegations that the Japanese judiciary thinks “foreigners”, like yakuza, “have no human rights” (despite, as I have argued, Japan’s clear double standard in criminal jurisprudence depending on nationality).  Surely not.  Arudou Debito


The Japan Times, Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ichihashi trial bares translation woes
Courts refuse to admit interpreters often lack the necessary skills
By SETSUKO KAMIYA Staff writer
Courtesy http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20110721f1.html

The lay judge trial of accused rapist and murderer Tatsuya Ichihashi, whose verdict is expected Thursday, has captured a lot of media attention since it started July 4, but one element that has escaped notice is the quality of the language translation.

Many errors by a court interpreter, from slight differences in nuance to the loss of a few details, have so far been observed during the high-profile case.

This has prompted concerned legal professionals and linguistic experts to call on the courts to face up to the quality of interpretations when foreign nationals are involved in court cases and to improve the training and status of interpreters.

The errors may not have been crucial for the lay and professional judges to decide the facts of the case and Ichihashi’s fate. But experts say having too many mistakes is a major problem because the accuracy of the interpretation is crucial to ensure a fair trial for everyone involved, from defendants, accusers and witnesses to victims and their families.

Several interpretation errors, for example, were made during the fifth session of the trial on July 11 when Julia Hawker, mother of the 22-year-old British victim, Lindsay Ann Hawker, testified as a witness for the prosecution.

The prosecutors’ goal in calling her to the stand was to establish that the consequences of the crimes were grave and that the family wanted Ichihashi severely punished for raping and taking Lindsay’s life and leaving her body in a soil-filled bathtub on his apartment balcony.

When questioned about the impact of her death on the family, the mother said she blamed herself for allowing her daughter to come to Japan. “I couldn’t take a bath for two years,” she said, apparently because of how her daughter was found.

But the court interpreter translated the phrase into Japanese as “I cannot take back the two years.”…

Rest of the article at

14 comments on “Japan Times: Ichihashi trial bares translation woes: Courts refuse to admit that interpreters often lack the necessary skills

  • I’m surprised nobody reacted to the change in nuance from “Japan is a less safe place to be” to “Japan is the most unsafe place to be”, where are all the outraged people to claim Japan-bashing in this case? Ah wait, the mistake was made by one of their own, so it doesn’t count…

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    This is more about professional quality. The irony here is that those so called a certified interpreter or a professional translator are doing a sub-par work performance, and prove themselves to be an iron horse. And the court hired them for working on the translation of court proceeding and testimonies with verifying their qualifications, anyway. Speaking of ignorance…

  • This is what I found a lot in my days working there: the Japanese people’s English is better than most Westerners’ Japanese. But it is NOT fluent English by any means. And they miss a lot–especially the nuance.

    I am surprised that “Japanese fluency” would be required for international positions, but somehow “English FLUENCY” is discounted.

    I appreciate when someone can put basic things into English. But it sounds like some of the Japanese are kidding themselves, if they think that being able to get by in English is the same as knowing English. It is as hard to know English as a Japanese, as it is for a native English speaker to know Japanese, and I find a number of bi-cultural kids seem to have these gaping holes in certain areas of knowledge.

    More humility is required in the interpretation and translation areas.

  • About 99% of all the Japanese english speakers i meet or teach (not my daily job) have very very poor comprehension.

    They learn English like they are taught Japanese, repeat, repeat repeat..Questions….here is set model Answer…on and on.

    So, there is zero compehension and when the answer is not as the “set model reply” rather than enquire (as to enquire is rude in itself for them) they “guess” or more often provide a non-commital reply but with a positive spin.

    A fully qualified English teacher (she is Japanese) friend i have i once met her in the supermarket. Upon greeting she said it has been a while since we last met, so i then asked her what has she been doing during the past week. Her reply…it is 2:30. I asked another similar question…similar reply.!!!

    If i stick to “simple” questions allowing her (and others) to provide “simple” stock answers, everthing is fine….go off-piste, and they are up the creek without a paddle.

    The 1 % I cite above, surprise surrpise are those that have actually lived in an English speaking country for sometime. It appears the penny drops..there is no set Q&A in life, thus you answer the question being asked and the conversation goes wherever it goes…funny huh??!!

    But, back to courts. When i had a translator for my court case, he was hopeless. Instead of asking a simple direct question, he repeated the question several times, but each time in a different way, which would yeild a different direct reply..thus i was endlessly confused. The judge couldn’t understand why the interpreter kept asking questins and why I didn’t reply except to ask the interpreter more questions…(trying to figure what the bloody question was!).

    It seemed to me that that the interpreter wanted to show case his English to me. My lawyers wwho spoke excellent english (he studied at Oxford Uni), were shocked how poor this highly recommended court translator was and recognised the difficulty i was having in providing an answer.

    — I don’t really want this blog entry to devolve into a general discussion of how bad Japanese English skills are and why. Please keep relating things back to the issue of court interpretation, everyone. Thanks.

  • I don’t know about court translators, but I applied to be a volunteer police translator for the World Cup (back in 2002). I had only been here a couple of years, and my Japanese was barely intermediate. I was accepted, but luckily not called upon as, basically, nothing happened during the tournament.

    Still fairly worrying though. Even now I would hesitate to translate in a high-stakes situation, and back then I shudder to think how things might have gone.

    More professionalism may be needed at every level.

  • It’s very unfortunate that such mistranslations occur, but there is nothing that can be done.

    High level translation is not something that anyone can do. The people you are deriding are probably in the top percentile and would be able to pass any realistic certification program.

    Especially for generic translations such as the ones required in a court case, a translator needs to be highly proficient in both languages and knowledgeable about everything. Most people wouldn’t be able to paraphrase their primary tongue properly, in writing, given infinite time and a dictionary.

    Interpretation, is an ability that very few people really master, they make heaps of money for a few minutes of it and they still commit errors. So you know 農薬 is pesticide instead of fertilizer which would be 肥料. Go ahead and ring the UN’s doorbell to let them know you are a qualified interpreter. Can you vow to know the difference between any two random terms in any random field? Can you pay attention to every word said while trying to remember the previous few minutes worth of speech? And that’s leaving simultaneous interpretation alone.

    Adding redundancy can help dealing with weak human resources, but only so much.

    You could hire only the best, and have five of them at each trial. But then don’t come crying when you are being held of a crime on false charges for years until they become available, because they are busy with Sumisu-san’s stolen underwear.

    — What an odd mix of unreasonably high and low expectations. You seem to feel indignant less towards the judiciary and the flawed means of justice, more towards the people who want an improved judiciary with better communication skills and standards. Guess we had better not, for example, criticize a judge because we aren’t qualified judges ourselves.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Has anyone in the audience ever interpreted in court? It sounds like it could be a very fulfilling (but exhausting) experience if you’re confident that you can interpret accurately.

    After experiencing some unpleasant and unwarranted questioning on the street a few times several years ago, and shuddering at how unpleasant that would have been if I couldn’t speak Japanese, I once looked into becoming a police interpreter. Unfortunately, like with Ben, a few inquiries to some connections in the family revealed there was no demand — there just aren’t that many English-speaking criminals, nor was there any demand for German, another language I speak at an intermediate level.

    Court cases encompass human activities far beyond the criminal, so I imagine that the demand for English might be higher. If anyone knows how to go about working in this field, please post.

  • I think that the poor showing of the translator in the Ichihashi case is another prime example of the strongest of Japanese work ethics; being seen to do your job is more important than actually doing your job well.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Mark,
    Whilst you are correct in your assumption that translating legalize in court is a highly taxing way to spend time, please read Debito’s post. The inaccuracies that have been made are pretty astonishing. We are talking about simple sentences and everyday words, not legal jargon, in this case.

  • The article states:

    “The law stipulates that when a defendant or witness does not speak Japanese, the court is required to hire an interpreter proficient in the language used by the parties involved.”

    So, there is a legal duty to have a linguistically proficient interpreter.

    It adds:

    “The relatives of victims can participate in trial proceedings with their own attorneys and ask questions of defendants and express their opinions to the courts.

    Because no one was officially monitoring the interpretation,…”

    So, victims’ relatives and the defendant each have a right to proficient translation.

    Yet, the attorneys for the defendant were not monitoring the quality of translation. This is surprising, because exculpatory evidence may have been missed.

    Nor apparently, were the relatives of the victim or their relatives, which is not surprising.

    So, it appears that defendants’ attorneys are not vigorously working towards the best interests of their clients.

    That is a damning indictment of Japanese justice.

    It is compounded by the following:

    “To be a court interpreter, candidates approach a local district court and are interviewed to determine their language skills and background. Once the court decides to put the person on its list, training happens mostly on the job.”

    So, during an early phase of such training, presumably many errors occur.

    If this attitude towards professionalism in the courts is common, then one may expect that overall justice in Japan is haphazard, as ill-trained judges, attorneys and others are participating.

    Moreover, if this attitude is common throughout all society, then perhaps ill-trained safety experts, airline pilots, and other professionals are common.

  • beneaththewheel says:

    Despite the stereotypes, there are a significant number of Japanese people who do have an amazing English ability (they usually don’t go into English teaching). From my anecdotal experience, translator courses for Japanese people are very high level and difficult with sometimes the meaning of the English difficult for me to pinpoint. I believe there is a system in place for good translators to have proper licensing to prove their ability.

    Assuming is true, the problem here would be based on something else. My guess would be superiors not thinking having an adequate translator is important. Or perhaps this one person slipped through the system and their inability never got shown into the light. Hopefully it’s the latter and there’s many qualified people. If it’s the former, then hopefully the issues garners enough importance in the Japanese media for it to be properly examined and exposed.

    Has anyone checked if this issue got into the Japanese language media?

    — I do not think it is an isolated incident. I have sat in on enough translated court cases and found in every instance I’ve witnessed the translator to be generally inadequate for the task. I have seen far better interpretation in public lectures, speeches, and business meetings, not to mention televised media and diplomatic work. I think Japanese courts simply do not screen properly because they have no real or effective screening standards. It does not seem to be a priority within the judiciary to establish them.

  • I wonder what the pay differential is between court appointed translators and the guys who do lectures and conventions? Perhaps the hotshot interpreters get the prestigious high paying gigs and the minimum wage court system winds up with the bottom feeders?

    — From what I’ve heard, court translators get paid pretty decently.

  • I wonder if the nationality of the interpreters may be the problem. AFAIK, the general rule about interpreting is similar to translation- that one should interpret/translate INTO one’s native tongue. This usually makes mistakes less common. Are all the court interpreters Japanese? I would think a person doing J to E interpretation should be a native English speaker, and one doing E to J should be Japanese.

    Perhaps in cases like this, the two interpreters could be a team of one Japanese and one non Japanese.


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